Thursday, December 26, 2013

No Mercy For Dogs Part 13

By Thomas Bartlett Whitaker

Part 12 can be read here

Although I did not understand it until much later, one of the core lessons I learned from Dons Antonio and Julian was that the only thing better than not being noticed was being noticed and then discarded as harmless. It was fitting then that I first met them in a set from a bad 1920’s Hollywood movie.

The exterior of Don Antonio's barbershop may have looked little different from the other businesses on the block, but stepping through the doorway brought you into a museum of sorts. Shaped like the letter "I," the majority of the shops' floor space was dominated by three massive barber's chairs. "Massive" doesn't really do these behemoths justice: they were so large they were practically architecture in their own right. At some point in the deep past, they might have been gilded, but the vagaries of time had taken much of the shine off. Rather than attempt to reproduce something unrecoverable, Don Antonio had simply left the chairs to decay gracefully. They looked oddly like some sort of squatting sphinx-esque creatures, with the armrests machined in great detail to represent winged arms, the base inlaid with an off-white marble in the shape of clawed feet. If Jay Gatsby hadn't been a fictional character, he would have gotten his hair cut in chairs like these.

The rest of the shop was more of the same. Instead of the cheap, modern floor-to-ceiling mirrors you see in virtually every barbershop in America, Don Antonio had opted… for none. If I had paused to consider this, I would have detected a powerful symbol of confidence and control, but at the time I merely thought it odd. The floor was made up of alternating black and white linoleum tiles, and the entire back wall was taken up by a dark reddish mahogany shelving system. A light patina of dust relaxed over the two chairs on the right side of the room, a concession made to the inevitable. Even the fly buzzing about near the window appeared lazy, as if moving about in a thick liquid. It was as if the store whispered to you: come, come, relax, Senor; yes, yes, the world outside is falling apart and so too are we, but at least here we do not take it too seriously or lose our sense of aesthetics. It was a very comfortable place.

There were no radios, televisions, computers, or any other concessions made to modernity, save for the ornate electrical lighting system hung from the ceiling. The four elderly gentlemen seated around a game of chess in the corner completed the illusion. I recall thinking that central casting could not have done any better if they had had months to prepare the scene. As soon as my body blocked the light cutting in through the open doorway, four sets of bifocally enlarged eyeballs swiveled to take me in. Despite the fact that they all appeared to be only slightly younger than dirt, I got the craziest notion that it would have been an astronomically bad idea to have reached anywhere near my waistband. Whatever I had been expecting, this was not it, and I silently cursed at myself for spooking over a quartet of geriatrics. The Mercado must have exhausted me, I thought; only later would I come to understand that my initial feeling had been very much correct.

One of the habits that I had come to appreciate about Mexico was the generally friendly greeting one gets upon entering a business establishment. These four had missed the memo (or perhaps predated it), so instead the five of us simply stared at one another in what was fast becoming an increasingly uncomfortable silence.

I blinked first, and stammered out a greeting. "Buenas dias a todos. Se encuentra Don Antonio?" A quick, visually telegraphed conversation passed between the group, before a short man wearing gabardine trousers stood up and bowed slightly at the waist. I managed to snatch "pasale Ud" out of his response, so I unslung my satchel and removed my sunglasses. He took a moment to tuck his tie into his dress shirt behind the third button before ushering me to take a seat in the chair closest to the chess table.

The man I presumed to be Don Antonio Baranda Perez was thin, with a slightly stooped back and thinning gray hair. He looked remarkably like a Hispanic Erich Honecker, even down to his huge, square, 1950s style glasses. As I settled down into the thick cushions of his barber-god throne, he busied himself with practiced care, removing a series of scissors and razors from a cabinet. I didn't say anything, but it was obvious that I was the first customer of the day, and I wondered what type of barbershop survived without customers. The answer came back pretty quickly: no type. He shuffled to a corner, where he removed a broom and dustpan, and then turned and gave me - or my hair, rather - a penetrating glance. He looked a bit like a man staring down a well, trying to see the bottom. I had been concerned that I was not going to be able to explain what I wanted from him, to the extent that I had considered having him simply shave my head completely. I needn't have worried, because Antonio never asked for my request. Instead, he simply ran his fingers through my hair a few times, as if divining the nature of my previous cut. Finally, he nodded and wrapped a thick towel across my chest and neck. Although I would come to find out that he spoke very passable English, he never said a word to me that day beyond his greeting. Before he began cutting, he mimed running a razor over his cheeks, which surprised me. I had never been shaved by someone else before, and was a little hesitant to allow someone with 1/4 inch thick lenses anywhere near my throat with a straight razor. He noticed my indecision and calmly tapped my chest with his palm, as if to say: it's ok, I got this, relax.

If you have ever been around a master craftsman before, you will know that it takes no time at all to see their skill come to the fore. Whatever else Don Antonio had been in this life, he was on very good terms with a pair of scissors. Every move was calculated and quick, no energy wasted. The entire experience was oddly relaxing, very nearly intimate in a way that I cannot explain. Competence is a salve, I suppose.

Before long the chess game resumed itself, and I was able to keep up with the action when Don Antonio stayed to my right. The most remarkable thing about the three gentlemen seated around the table was that they never spoke - not once. Occasionally one would grunt or cough or blow his nose, but they never said a word. The two playing the game were polar opposites, both in appearance and style of play. The man playing white had somehow managed to herd all of the fat on his body to his gut, where he appeared to be conducting scientific studies on the tensile strength of his suspenders. He had a strange way of waving his left hand after he placed a piece, as if he were dismissing someone. He was too aggressive in his play, and I watched him blow what had previously been a fairly well balanced Queens Gambit, Meran Variation game by pushing his knights too far afield.

His opponent was crisp. That is the only adjective I find ultimately fitting in my arsenal. Everything about Don Julian was precise, from the cut of his clothes to his economy of movement to his military cut silver hair. He was the only one of the four who seemed to keep abreast of sartorial advancements since the1960’s. Perched upon his nose was a pair of severe wire-rimmed glasses that made him look German. He was also the only one of the four who seemed to be interested in my presence, though every time I looked his way, I had the feeling that he had just diverted his gaze. The last member of the trio was the largest of the lot by far. At 5'10", I had started to become accustomed (and rather pleased, I must add) with being the tallest person in the room, but this man was at least four inches taller than myself. He looked a bit like the Major from Fawlty Towers, and appeared to have some sort of a lung infection, his frequent coughing easily the loudest noise in the shop.

Once it was obvious that the fat man had dug himself into a hole that he was not going to be able to dig himself out of with a crane, he graciously tipped his king to the board and stood up. The other two followed suit, and proceeded to shake hands. Even in this act, they said nothing, and the silence was starting to creep me out a little. The three stepped outside, and within a minute or two Don Antonio was making what appeared to be the final adjustments to my cut. He quickly picked up a hand mirror and gave me a 360“ view. In 1/4 the time and for 1/15th the price he had exactly mimicked my cut from the States. As I said, the man knew his business.

After I nodded in approval he pushed a button in the chair and lowered it into a horizontal position. He carefully laid warm wash clothes he retrieved from a small sink in the corner on my cheeks, and I soon heard him sharpen his straight razor on a leather strop. When he was satisfied with the edge, he smeared cream on my face and began very systematically giving me the best shave I've ever had. He was like a surgeon: a little movement here, another there, and suddenly I had a face that had not been that smooth since I was a child.

The process was incredibly relaxing, and my mood wandered back to the question at hand, namely why Staci had sent me here in the first place. These were odd ducks, to be sure, but in their silence I hadn't seen or heard anything that would lead me to believe they could help me navigate the tricky rapids I was trapped in. In fact, this place seemed the last in town I would go to in search of some heavy-duty assistance. Staci knew my problem, I reflected, knew what I needed and what was at stake, and instead of sending me to any of the hundreds of obvious players in the underworld who lived in Cerralvo, she sent me to get a shave from an octogenarian mute. It didn't make any sense.

By the time Don Antonio had finished my shave, the man with the silver hair had returned to sit in his seat. I thought it a little odd that the three had stepped outside to say their goodbyes, but I was feeling really stupid about having come there and was mostly anxious to affect my own getaway. For a shave and a haircut Don Antonio charged me 35 pesos, about what it would have cost me to get a cup of Starbucks, had there been one within 100 kilometers. I shook my head in amazement, and placed a 50 in his hands, thinking that even this was an insult. As I did so, I glanced back at the man with the silver hair, and again felt as if he had only just looked away. Confused and angry with myself, I turned to go.

I don't really know why I stopped. I recall pausing at first in recognition of the fact that I had a long walk home ahead of me, one made even less pleasant for having to be made smack in the middle of the hottest part of the day. Still, as I readied myself for the journey, I kept seeing Staci's face as she recommended I come here. Was I really going to come all of the way out here and not figure this out? I turned back in time to see another loaded glance pass between the two men, and it was this more than anything else which caused me to set my satchel back on the ground.

Don Antonio had returned to his tall stool just to the right of the chess table next to the cabinet, and had picked up what looked to be a drawing pad and a piece of conte pencil. He had busied himself scratching away at something. When I looked at the precise man, this time his eyes made contact - a little too much contact, if that makes any sense.

"May I?" I asked, gesturing at the empty chair across from him.

He waited a long moment before nodding. "Please." His voice sounded like a saw cutting through wood. He allowed me to play white first, but it didn't really matter. He eviscerated me in the first game by using a variant of the Nimzo-Indian defense that I had never seen before. I tried a Semi-Slav defense in the next game that he cut through in about 25 moves, but by this point I wasn‘t really surprised. You know pretty quickly when you are outgunned at chess, and while I don't think I am a slouch by any means, this guy played in another league altogether. He picked apart the last vestiges of my self-esteem during a few more games, before I removed my handkerchief and waved it in the air before wiping my face off.

"Pawn for pawn is no way to play the game," he opined, settling back into his chair. After this many weeks in Cerralvo, I was no longer surprised when I met someone whose English had barely a trace of an accent. In fact, it would have surprised me only if he hadn't spoken my language.

"Pawn for pawn seems like a fair motto for my life at the moment," I responded, looking towards Don Antonio. "What's he doing?"

Antonio flipped his drawing board around and showed me a very fair sketch of a series of sailboats tied to a pier. The architecture of the buildings behind the quay looked distinctly European, maybe Italian. Definitely no place in Mexico, I thought, nodding my approval. "You are very good."

"He does portraits as well. Perhaps you would like yours done?" He leaned forward as he said this, and his look intensified. I felt my blood pressure rise as I searched about for some way to avoid having my likeness taken, the last thing someone in my position needed.

"Um, no thanks. It'‘s against my religion. You know, no icons of God's creations, and such." It was a lame excuse, and his smile let me know he was as far ahead of me in this conversation as he was at chess.

"And what religion would that be?"

I thought about trying to pass myself off as Greek Orthodox, but I had no idea it they had a community down here, or even what they believed. Mormonism, maybe? They couldn't have Mormons down here, I thought. Deprived of even a lie that sounded convincing,
I sighed and met his eyes.

"The Church of Self Preservation."

"Ah, I know this one well, as it happens."

"Look...Staci Morelos suggested that I come here today to get a haircut." I seemed to run out of steam at this point, the weakness of my position uncomfortably clear. "But I don't know why." I looked up in time to see his face light up slightly at the mention of Staci's name, and my hopes rose. "Do you happen to know why she did this?"

"Well, that depends. Who are you?"

"My name is Ramos. My rather is Gelo Ramos." I removed my wallet and took out my ID, placing it face up on the table. If he was anything like the person I hoped he was, I knew that he was never going to buy the legend, but I wanted him to see that I didn't come to him completely empty-handed. He looked this over for a fraction of a second and then turned his eyes back to my face. He seemed conflicted tor a moment, and his eyes went slightly unfocused. I wondered it he was having a seizure or something, but almost as quickly he was back. He sighed, seeming somewhat resigned.

"Well, what is it that you need from me?"

I didn't think that "everything" would be an acceptable answer, but I had no idea of how to distill my need into a few sentences, or even a few paragraphs.

"I… am not sure I'm here to speak to you...Staci sent me to talk to him," I said, pointing at the barber.

He seemed amused at this. "I suspect that she sent you here to see me. I do not know why...but I promise you that I will find out. I am called Julian."

"Ok...look..." I started explaining to him that I had come to Mexico to meet my father for the first time, that I was feeling a bit lost in a foreign culture, the whole bullshit story. He cut me off almost right from the beginning.

"You can save the bedtime stories tor the police. Why don't you tell me what you really want to know?"

It was a bit of a relief not to have to continue in this vein, but I felt it was important to rind out which part of my story didn't ring true. "How do you know this is a story?"

This, as it turned out, was a mistake. He slammed his hand down on the table, and pieces bounced up in the air and onto the floor. Molten lava boiled up from under the surface of his words. "Knowing things, boy gringo, is what I do! Now stop wasting my time and tell me why you are here!"

I must have flinched because out of the corner of my eye I saw Antonio‘s hand come to rest just on the corner of the mahogany cabinets, and it was pretty obvious that he had something stashed on the backside. I very carefully relaxed my posture and settled back into the chair, my palms facing down on the table.

This was, for lack of a better word, ludicrous. I was being put in check by a pair of geezers who had probably been alive when Mexico had been ruled by Spain. My temples started to throb, and I reached up to rub them. This fucking town is fucking crazy.

I had apparently spoken this last thought aloud, because Julian and Antonio both started laughing. I glanced up to find him sharing a bemused expression with the barber, which culminated in a slight horizontal nod. Antonio's hand tell away from the shelf, and the tension in the room deflated.

"This is the first intelligent thing you have said, boy gringo. But crazy in what way?"

I sensed his question was a test. How crazy, indeed? I thought. In every way imaginable, came the answer. "It's… look… I know Mexico is supposed to be corrupt and all that, but you’ve got obvious drug kingpins driving around in Land Rovers and living in million dollar castles. Corruption is one thing, but I know you lot have something like the IRS. Every single person in government is not on the take. This place can't be this broken, in such an open way. Why don't these people tear each other apart? I've seen gangs of what are very obviously bodyguards around town. Why don't they kill each other? They can't all work for the same is it possible that the Mayor lives on ten acres when he's never worked a real job? How is it possible that one of the highest ranking police officers in town lives right next to Gelo? Everything around here is too strange for reality.... " I had practically begun to yell by this point, my contusion and exhaustion getting the better of me. "I walk into a fucking barbershop that hasn't had a customer all day and wind up getting a shave from what very well may be a Mexican Sweeny Todd, and..." At this, Don Antonio began laughing so hard he had to remove his glasses and wipe his eyes, and I felt myself running out of steam. Allowing the two to chuckle for a moment, I closed my eyes and concentrated. "I went to a country shrine the other night."

"Oh, did you find yourself closer to the Lord?"

"There were two figures on the altar. You know them?"

"Where was the shrine?" he asked, the topic obviously not one which interested him much.

"On the highway to Melchor Ocampo, in a ravine."

"Well, one of them was undoubtedly la Virgin de Guadalupe, the great idol of Mexico's piety. The other was probably San Gregorio, patron saint of the region. Like Assisi, he preached to birds."

"Why would he... nevermind. I was referring to the figures in the back room. Surely you know what I am talking about, since ‘knowing things is what you do.’"

His eyes narrowed a little at this, and I was struck by how much he could look like an alligator. Still, my comment seemed to finally spark his interest. "Really? A back room?"

"One looked like a cowboy. He was holding a sword."

His eyes sparkled as he took this in. "Then this would be Jesus Malverde. He was, in legend at least, something of a local Robin Hood. He robbed the wealthy to give to the poor during the dictatorship of Portirio Diaz. In more recent times, he has become a saint to narcotraficantes. You pray to him, and he helps you evade the police." He stopped tor a moment, before finishing this thought. "It used to be that only the Sinaloans made shrines to him, and to find one would be to find a statement of territory ownership: this place, she is ours."

"The narco equivalent of the Monroe doctrine.”

"Something like this, yes."

"And the other?"

"What did it look like?"

"Like death."

" she is here now, too. Now, si, this is very interesting

Yes, they have made a saint of la muerte. And why not? Why should we be surprised, I ask you? Death is the only god that dares to crawl out of fantasy and into the real world. why should she not be honored? What did you think of her shrine, boy gringo?"

"I nearly shit myself."

"Yes...well...hijo of Gelo Ramos of Orlando Florida, you are right to say that this is not a normal town. If your story were true, I would wonder why your father had not explained this to you. I begin to see why this woman tells you to come here, though. You know about the plazas?"

"Yeah. Well, the two of them, the big ones."

"No, no, boy. The plazas I speak of are for the product, they are the highways through Mexico which lead to the border and beyond."


"Each of the negocios, the cartels, they have control over different plazas. To stray into one which is not yours is an act of war. Ves?"

I nodded.

"The balance changes all of the time. New jefes, new groups, they all come along, and the old ones, the ones who do not end up with la Santisima Muerte or in American prisons, they need some place to go, you see? So they make towns like our Cerralvo, la cuna del estado. This is a place this, like to go to retire. If you want to make a little money, this is fine, but the point is not to - how you say?- trouble the waters. Here, the cartel is the Golfo, and they tax you, but they do not kill you. There are six cities like Cerralvo, only six, all in the north. This is why this town is so strange, as you say. It is a place to hide; this is a place you go to hopefully die before the things you have been denying catch up with you. It is a place for cut flowers to go to die, to rot." This last was said with equal parts anger and disgust, and for a brief moment I saw all the days of his life stretched out behind him on the wall like a shadow: the faded glories of the past reduced by fear and impotence to a state where all that was left was the casual destruction of similarly enfeebled warriors over a chessboard. In Julian, for an instant, I saw what my life would be like in 60 years, if I stayed in Cerralvo.

"So you are saying that Cerralvo is all the bad stuff in the entire country concentrated?"

"Yes, all the bad. But you had to have known this, yes? It is why you came."

I didn't correct him, didn't explain it had been simple dumb luck that had landed me here. His comments explained what I had believed to be contradictory feelings of security and vulnerability that I had detected when the Hammer and I had last spoken.
It also explained the outrageous numbers of obvious criminals in town. An entire town built as a narco-free-trade-retirement-village. Who could have imagined such a thing?

My musings were interrupted by a slight clicking noise behind me, followed by a tiny gust of air. I started to turn and then nearly shot out of my chair when I found a child of five or six staring at me from less than two feet away. He had not come in through the door, which was in my direct line of sight, and I quickly ran my confused eyes over the room, looking for a doorway that I had somehow totally missed. It took me a moment to locate the tiny trap door set into the underside of the mahogany cabinet. What I had mistaken to be places to tuck a chair into were in fact tunnels leading through the wall, just large enough for an adult to crawl through. As I watched, the child handed a slip of paper to Antonio, who read it quickly and then patted the boy on the head. The child then crawled back into the tunnel and closed the trap door behind him. Even knowing the door was there prevented me from being able to detect the tiny cracks in the surface of the wood. By this point in the day, children converted into human text messages barely registered on my strange-ometer, and I realized that I needed to leave, right then, and find some time to decompress.

"Look, Julian..." I said, turning to face him again. "May I return? I have many things to consider after what you told me. But you have been very helpful. May we speak again?"

Another loaded look passed between the two, and then Julian nodded. "You will need another shave again, yes? Don Antonio here is always open tor those who want to look sharp. Come next Sunday, and we will continue our conversation."

I nodded and stood, extending my hand to both. Julian's hand felt dry, almost brittle, but Antonio still had the grip or a much younger man. As I slipped my sunglasses back on and positioned my satchel across my chest, Julian called out to me. Turning, I saw him leaned over in his seat, collecting the pieces of the set which had tailed off the table.

"Listen, Gelo Junior, when you do come back, it would be... for the best it you made sure your father was busy elsewhere." It looked like he was going to say something else, but stopped. After about 30 seconds I realized that I had been dismissed.

Thus I met Julian Volcaste, factotum, forger, runner of illegal weapons, a man of questions left unanswered and answers that did not satisfy, the only man I met during my days south of the border who could have saved me from what was to come, if only I had known how to listen.

To be continued…

Thomas Whitaker 999522
Polunsky Unit
3872 FM 350 South
Livingston, TX 77351

Friday, December 20, 2013

I Forgive You

By Louis Castro Perez 

Hello to all of you, and thank you for taking the time to read this.  A couple of things before I start:  I was asked to write a little something by my Amiga Dorothy Ruelas… thank you so much for just being the person you are.

I would also like to say to all of you who might be reading this, that I am in no way trying nor wanting to make anyone feel sorry for me or my situation…I just have some really good conversations with my friend Dorothy and she asked me for this.  Thank you all for your understanding.

It’s CRAZY how powerful those 3 words are.  I’m in my 50’s and have heard and listened to so many “I forgive you’s!”  But there are two times in my life that when I heard these words…it just changed everything about what I thought they meant.

The first time I truly found out what “I forgive you” meant was the last day of my trial.  At the end of Death Penalty trials, there is what is called a “family impact statement,” which allows the families of victims to speak directly to the convicted.

Well, I sat there with my whole family: parents… brothers… sisters… cousins… aunts… uncles… and friends behind me and I listened to this man I’ve never met in my life talk to me with such hurt and hate.

He told me how he would be praying that any and all things BAD that happen in prisons…that they would all happen to me and that I would rot in hell!!

I truly felt sorry for this man, but understood his hurt… Sure, it pissed me off, but I just sat there and listened.

Once he was done, he got up to walk back to his seat.  He wouldn’t look at me, but I followed him until I saw my father get up out of his seat, and walked towards this man…OH NO!

But my father held his hand out to this man and said, “I forgive you…I forgive you for what you just said to my son.”

My father waited for the man to shake his hand, and when he finally did, my father just turned and walked out of the courtroom.  WOW!!

I’ve never seen nor heard such an act!  I just felt so damn proud…even when I had just received my sentence of death!

I am a firm believer in God…I have faith and still keep hope in my heart.

A lot of people have asked “why” do I think I was put here?  For the longest time I would ask, “God…why? Why this?” But I stopped asking “why?”  I now ask Him, “What now?”  What do you want me to do now?

I have four beautiful children…three sons and a daughter.

I married very young…18.  My sons’ mother and I really didn’t know what respect was…we fought a lot, but worse…we fought in front of our sons.  Enough so, that I left my family.  And being selfish and stupid, I also pretty much stayed away from my sons too.

Once I was put into this place, I started to hear a lot of stories of so many young men.  But what hit me the hardest was when they would speak about their fathers:  Good for nothing!! SOB’s. Sorry ass, MF’s…I heard it all and then it hit me like a rock...GOD is showing me what I had done to my own sons!!  I truly believe it was what He wanted me to figure out!  And it hurt!! 

I tried to contact my sons, but it just wasn’t going to happen. I’m working on my 16th year of being here and my sons have since grown up into men. I got to visit them many years ago for the first time and I could see that hate when they looked at me.  It’s taken since then 10 years for us to talk again.

I was informed that my time here was somewhat running out, so I wrote to my boys.

I received a letter telling me that they believed what was being said about me and wanted nothing to do with me. I felt a pain that I’ve only felt once in my life, and that’s when my mother passed away.

So, not a year ago I sort of wrote somewhat of a good/bye letter to my sons…just letting them know that no matter what…I have ALWAYS loved them with all my heart.  I begged them to forgive me for not being the father they deserved all their lives.

I received a letter from them asking to come see me.  Of course, I was in awe and put them on my list. (I cry every time I think about this).

But my sons came to visit me and it was as if we’ve been together all their lives… And when our conversation sort of stalled, my son looked at me and said:

“I forgive you, Dad”

It just about broke my heart!!


Three words…so powerful!!

Dorothy asked me to try and write about the forgiveness of children of the men here on Death Row…but I just can’t speak about other children because I don’t know about them, but I know mine have forgiven me.  And it’s all I could have asked for.

Please forgive me…I didn’t mean to leave my daughter out, but I had learned my lesson with my sons, and I tried to better with my daughter…she has always been my Baby Girl.

Thank all of you very much for your time.

Mrs. Ruelas! Ya sabes…Mil Gracias por Todo.

Con cariño y toda mi alma!

Big Lou

Big Lou with his sister Delia
Louis Castro Perez # 999328
Polunsky Unit Death Row
3872 FM 350 South
Livingston, Texas 77351

Thursday, December 12, 2013

The Last of the Thinkas

A Story By Eduardo Ramirez

I hate the dirty, dingy, dungeon-like vibe of these neighborhood bars; the incessant yammering of knuckle-dragging men who traded away their best years for a quick fix and a six-pack of Budweiser. I hate the over-perfumed scent of desperation that wraps itself around women over-burdened with too many kids from too many men. These p1aces are hopeless, these people are hopeless, but without pretense--everyone knows the score. The drinks are cheap, though. Which is good because I'm a cheapskate who'll haggle over penny candy. Besides, the Main Street scene doesn't fit me at all. I find myself sickened at the Abercrombie & Fitch crowd, with their air of self-importance. It conflicts with my own sense of snobbery. I'm not looking to rub elbows with anyone higher than myself on the social ladder, or hoping that their mystique will rub off on me. I'm doing fine in the mystique department, thank you very much. No one likes me for a variety of reasons. That's my mystique. I come to this place to drink and be left alone. Nothing more, nothing less. If I wanted something exotic I'd fuckin' go to Thailand. If I wanted to impress Donald Trump I'd go to one of his gaudy mausoleums and take a massive dump in the lobby. Here I'm free to sit on the corner stool – uninterrupted - and scribble my thoughts on a gin-dampened napkin. That's my process: corner-to-corner on both sides; a collection of nonsense that my subconscious has vomited into words. This is how I exorcise my demons.

I used to be so peaceful with my life--or at least I thought I was. The mellow young philosopher, high as a kite with a joint hanging on my lips and the pearls of wisdom dripping off my tongue. The world seemed like such a nicer place then. It was definitely more fun. I’m on my way out... have been for a while now.

I was sixteen, sitting in a stolen car listening to Cypress Hill. '81 Oldsmobiles were in high demand back then, drug dealers and the ghetto fab were decking them out in custom paint jobs and high-end stereo systems. There wasn't all that fuel-efficient, environmentally friendly crap that gets spouted about nowadays. The bigger the ride the cooler the stride; that was the motto. Oldsmobiles were easy to steal, too. No frame around the window so they could be flexed out; a skinny kid could reach his arm in to unlock the door with no problem at all. Crack the steering column above the tilt bar and pull back the ignition gear and take off in less than thirty seconds. It wasn‘t a sophisticated operation, but at two hundred dollars a pop it was an easy way to earn a crooked buck. I figured someone was going to steal those cars; and with a busted moral compass I pointed to myself to be the one collecting the cash.

Here's a bit of irony: I never learned how to drive. To this day I won‘t get behind the wheel. It’s too much of a hassle and I'm far too impatient to observe driver safety. My luck would have me driving off the face of a cliff--and there aren't any cliffs around my neighborhood. No, a blind man would make a better driver than I would.

Back then I had a partner--Disco Danny, we called him. A real ladies' man, with his slick back hair and pearly smile. I mean, girls noticed him coming a block away, and they swooned like he was a rock star. I was jealous, and a little insecure, but what I lacked in looks I made up for with heart. I was a lion. Danny was a lamb. I'm not sure if the lion led the lamb or if it was the other way around, but at the outset we made for a good team.
Danny must've been hatched from a carburetor, with a timing belt for an umbilical cord for all he knew about automotives. He taught me the mechanics of an ignition system so that I could start the car and he could drive off. It was an assembly line process that we worked into a science. If a guy got out of his car to make a withdrawal at the ATM he might just miss the magic of the disappearing car act. Sometimes I felt like Danny‘s patsy. But the cash from a half dozen cars every week massaged my ego a whole lot.

We were parked in a driveway behind a cluster of row homes in Pottstown. Neither of us was too familiar with the neighborhood except for the fact that racial tensions were high after the killing of a white cop‘s son by some out-of-towners a few years earlier. It was hard to picture the neatly kept lawns and the modestly tended playgrounds as a source of such violence, but for two Puerto Ricans in a stolen car things could have turned skinhead in a flash. It was the blunt smoke that kept us calm in the moment. All we were supposed to be doing was dropping this car off, collecting our money, and rolling on to the next one. But when things started to look like they weren't going according to plan Danny started to get skittish on me.

"June, We've been here awhile. I don’t think he's coming."

"Just chill, Dan. Here, smoke this.... " I told him, passing along a freshly rolled blunt.

We were supposed to be meeting a guy named Kitty. He was a real piece of white trash that literally defined what it meant to be a dirty blonde. The only thing that he was consistent at was being inconsistent. It was his addiction to angel dust and cough syrup that made him so unreliable. But money was money, and Kitty was the man under the man who held our checks. Waiting was a minor inconvenience. If worse came to worst then we'd leave the car behind and hope for a future pick up.

The bass from the music was throbbing through my brain. I've never been one to turn the volume up loud. Danny, on the other hand, couldn't keep from adjusting the sound. It was all the same to me but I guess his ears were more finely tuned than mine.

Daylight was quickly fading; the blue sky was slipping into a purple-black as we reclined and enjoyed the second-hand smoke while considering the meaning of life as potheads often do.

"I wanna do away with labels," Danny said. "I mean, labels are what separate us as people."

"Yeah .... " I breathed out, along with a heavy cloud of smoke, "but labels are what help us to define things." 

"I‘m not talking about things. I'm talking about people. People don't need defining. People just are," Danny coughed out through a lungful of smoke.

"People aren't that simple, Dan." I knew where Danny was coming from with this. People called him a white boy because he wasn't a stereotypical Puerto Rican. He didn't have the olive complexion of the island native or the soft textured hair. He didn't speak the language of our fathers, mostly because his wasn't around to teach him. He didn't hang with the other Puerto Ricans or listen to salsa music so he was treated as a mutt even by his own cousins. He preferred to date white girls, with their milky skin and clear blue eyes, whose attitudes were submissive and almost totally non-confrontational. The complete opposite of the girls in my neighborhood. "I’ve never committed a sin a white girl couldn't forgive me for," he once told me. Because he was raised in the suburbs he rarely ever ventured into the slums--and never after dark. He didn’t even like to drive to my neighborhood to pick me up for fear that he'd be carjacked. I'd have to walk a few blocks to where things got a little brighter and meet him there for a ride. Truth be told, Danny was more than a little prejudiced against people of color--though he'd never admit to this. To emphasize his distrust of those dudes--as he would refer to the corner dwellers in my neighborhood--he once told me that he'd never been robbed by a white guy.

"People do need defining, Dan. We're different. Different customs and habits, some good and some not-so good. Different ways of doing things. Being defined differently doesn’t have to be so bad. It's when we mistreat each other that things get ugly."

Danny sat in the driver's seat bopping his head, letting the music mix with his high. We weren't even thinking about Kitty or how much time had passed.

"Danny, man, you ever hear of that tribe called the Incas?"

"Yeah, from South America, right?" he responded lazily.

I turned and looked at him through red-rimmed eyes, my hat pulled so low I had to crane my head up to get a blurry view of him. The smile on my face was broad and the muscles in my cheeks were starting to ache.

"Well," I told him, "you and I, man, we're from a tribe called the Thinkas."

We burst out in laughter, shaking off any fear and lightening the mood. At the moment our fists bumped together to make our label official, the driver’s side door opened, rolling clouds of smoke escaped and drifted off like scattering ghosts. There, standing in their best hot shot poses, were two of Trenton's finest with their guns drawn--“DON'T MOVE ASSHOLES!” They barked.

We were caught completely off guard. High on life, but low on sense. 

There I was, face down on the dirty concrete with the jagged gravel digging into my cheek. My wrists were twisted violently and a sharp knee was pressed into the small of my back.

"You got any weapons or anything sharp in your pockets that I might poke myself with?" the officer asked as he put his full weight on me. I could hardly breathe so my response came out as a tortured gasp. He grabbed me by my hair and pulled my head up so that the tendons in my neck were pulled tight and straining. "You better tell me now. If I stab myself with anything you're gonna wish a stolen car was all you had to worry about."

“I don‘t have anything, man!" I shouted through the pain. Oxygen, in short supply already, was being cut off and I was starting to see stars. Dizzy, lightheaded, and with my skin burning a deep red, the cop forced my face back into the ground before I could pass out.

"I'm not your man, asshole... and you better start talking like you got some sense," he said, as he roughly patted me down before jerking my arms up to lift me onto my feet.

The cops came in separate squad cars and Danny had already been placed in the back of one. As he was being interrogated I was pushed up against the trunk of the Oldsmobile.

“What do you think you're doing here?" the cop asked with a hint of frustration in his voice, changing up his approach to try and soften me up. He started to brush off some of the dust on the front of my jacket and folded my collar down. "Who do you know in this neighborhood? You know the papis have been getting their asses kicked around here lately."

I didn't answer him. I knew the less I said the better off I would be. My instincts told me to get a look at his nametag --CONNOR, that was his name. I was still a little loopy from the dope and the shock of the situation but my mind recalled the movie Terminator Q. John Connor was the name of the kid Arnold Schwarzenegger was supposed to protect. This cop didn't look like John Connor, but he didn't look like Arnold either.

It surprised me, the condition that some of these cops were in. This wasn't my first tangle with the police and I was learning that some of them were as soft as the jelly donuts they shoved in their mouths regularly. I mean, I was just a kid so it wasn't that hard to overpower me, but how would these cream-pies handle a real tough guy. Officer Connor was huffing and puffing just from the exertion of lifting me up.

I looked into his face, "Are you going to take us in, Officer Connor?" Damage control. For a moment I thought I could talk our way out of an arrest. They didn't have to arrest us. They had the car, it would be returned to the owner and the insurance company would cover the cost for any damages. It was common for a cop to slap a kid around some and then drop him off in rival territory so he could fight his way home. Even drug dealers were routinely extorted rather than arrested. Danny and I were too insignificant of a bust for them to do the paperwork over. They could've taken us to the nearest playground and left us for the locals to deal with. I would've taken my chances with them.

"Oh, we're taking you guys in,” Officer Connor stated in a matter-of-fact tone. "We'll let the two of you decide whether or not you're gonna get charged." He grabbed me by the upper arm and led toward his cruiser. "All you gotta do is tell me who you're working for." He leaned in close and gestured with his head, "If I were you I'd think about what your friend is talking about to my partner."

I knew better. I knew that no matter what I said I was going to get ran in. The truth is that once the cops get their hooks into a person they won't let go. They didn't really care if their informants got hurt in the streets. There were plenty of snitches to mine for information. Besides, what charges were they going to reduce for me? At the moment I was guilty of being a passenger in a stolen car. Danny and I had rehearsed our stories in the event of this happening. At worst we were looking at possession of stolen property. We probably wouldn't get anything more serious than a fine and some community service. I bit the bullet and stayed quiet. I sent up a silent prayer that Danny was doing the same.

The ride to the station was short one. They processed us by taking our fingerprints, general information, and mug shots before placing us in a holding cell. Danny was coming apart at the seams. "I told you we should've left when Kitty was late," he pouted. 

"He's probably the one who sent the cops to us."

"Shut up, Dan," I snapped. ” The walls have ears. We're in it now so let's just wait it out and see what happens.”

"What‘s gonna happen is that we're probably gonna get sent to the Center."

Danny didn't cope well with pressure. It was always someone else's fault. Nevermind that he taught me the trade. Forget that he introduced me to Kitty. I was the bad influence, and like it or not, that was how the story was going to be told.

The hours went by without a word said between us. The cold cheese sandwiches and unsweetened tea they had given us were rumbling in my stomach. My nerves played a part in the cramping and my intestines were twisting into knots. Fear notwithstanding
I had to keep my cool, if only to keep Danny levelheaded. 

Danny curled up under a bench to block out the light and tried to sleep away the time. He tossed and turned restlessly. I wanted to say something to reassure him that we’d be fine but he transmitted his accusatory thought by avoiding eye contact at all costs.

I don't know what time it was, or how many hours had passed, but fright and frustration had started to affect my body. I could smell the stale sweat coming out of my pores. Every time I heard the phone ring I pressed my face to the snot-smeared Plexiglas window, looking to see if some indication was being made towards the cell. I was completely disoriented when a female officer banged a clip board on the window, "Cruz, Daniel, your ride is here." Danny rolled out from under the bench and picked himself up. He left the cell without looking back at me. A sense of rejection washed over me in the form of a cold sweat. It dawned on me that I was going to be the last of the Thinkas.

I don't know how long I was alone for, but it was in that cell that I learned to hate the halogen lights; the pale glow bounced of the cold, concrete walls and made me feel like I was under observation, in that light my hands looked ruddy and ashen. I felt dirty, and in need of a shower to wash away the experience. To this day I can't stand halogen lights.

They called it the sweatbox but it was a psychological sweat. In fact, they kept the air conditioner on all year long because the cold temperature made it hard to think about anything else; the whir of machinery was hypnotizing. The conditions were made to keep a prisoner mentally off-balanced. An off-balance prisoner will look for any lifeline to save him.

Being alone, I only had my thoughts to keep me company. I spent much of that time fantasizing. But the mixture of fear and uncertainty gave rise to a paranoia that no healthy teenager should experience.

Was this it? Was this going to be the routine that would play out over and over again? I intentionally avoided selling drugs because I didn't want to be known as another Puerto Rican pusher from the barrio. I didn't carry a gun or a knife—just a screwdriver for the occasional pop-up--because I thought it was too cliché. But there I was... in a white room, under white lights, watching white police officers file paperwork to put away black and brown faces like mine. Maybe I was no good. Maybe the Calvins of the world were right about me.

I recalled a memory of riding the K bus down the avenue one early evening when a guy from my neighborhood got on at Lincoln Street. He was a good guy, clean cut with a shape-up that was rounded off to the nearest thousandth. He walked up the aisle with a straight back as if he were in the military. I thought of him as a poseur, an uppity black republican who looked down on the rest of us common folk. His name was Maureece but we called him Calvin behind his back because he had worked his way up from cashier to the manager at a local McDonald's. When he noticed an empty seat next to me he took it as an invitation.

"Hey, June, what's up," he said, smiling as if genuinely happy to see me. A heavy scent of cooking grease exploded from his body as he leaned in to shake my hand. “Where you comin' from?"

"School," I replied, knowing instantly that he would point out that it was too late for that to be true.

“Detention kept you later than usual, huh?" he said as he smiled in that self-satisfied way that made me want to rearrange his lips.

"Naw. I was just hanging out on the ave before heading home." It was my thing: smoke a little weed, chase a little tail, maybe scheme up a dollar or two. Of course I didn't tell Maureece/Calvin this. He was a few years older than I was so he had the habit of preaching that I-know-better-than-you crap.

He looked me over, "So, what you been up to? You working?" he asked. It was hard to tell if his interest was sincere or not.

"No," I said, “I'm still doing the school thing."

"Really!" he said with wide-eyed shock, "I thought you would’ve dropped out by now." He slumped down so that we were shoulder to shoulder and in a hushed tone, through clenched teeth, he said, "What I really meant was have you been putting in work?"

I was caught off guard by the question. Was he pumping me for information or was he trying to buy some coke from me? I really didn't know where he was going with this. "You must've bagged your first body by now.... " He let the words trail off while his eyes searched my waist for the gun he expected to be there.

"You got it fucked up, Reece. That's not my style."

“Come on. I see you going out in the middle of the night. You can't tell me that good shit goes on that hour."

"It‘s called a social life, Reece. You should get one and join the club,” I said without hiding my resentment.

“Not you're club," he said, sticking his proud chin in the air. “I'm sure one of these days I'm gonna see you on America’s Most Wanted.”

"Maybe you'1l be the case that gets me some airtime," I said with a straight face.

I pulled the cord to alert the driver that I‘d be getting off at the next stop. Maureece/Calvin stood up to let me pass, and as I walked by he grabbed my arm and pulled me close, "Some roads you can't walk back from, June. You need to recognize before you take those steps."

I shrugged off his grip as the bus chugged to a bumpy stop. I got off and looked back to see Maureece/Calvin staring at me through the graffiti~scratched window. His face was expressionless but his eyes were looking straight through me, reading my secrets and insecurities.

Several months later and I was on the other side of a different graffiti-scratched window being stared at by a short, stout police officer with a walrus mustache. "Hey! Wake up in there. Your brother's here to pick you up." I didn't know I had a brother. I was just thankful to be getting out.

Flaco June's face was a block of rage as he eyed me walking toward him. Flaco isn't my brother. He was the boss of the chop shop that Danny and I stole cars for. The fact that we shared the same name caused him to joke when we first met that he and I were brothers. But Flaco wasn't a man given to too many jokes.

Back in the 80’s Flaco was a young revolutionary with the Independentistas on the island. He ran guns from Trenton to Puerto Rico, but after a federal agent was killed he decided to take up permanent residence in Trenton. Not much was known about him other than a few dope spots he ran. He owned an auto shop that covered for most of his illegal dealings and this helped him to fly under the radar. His politics were anti-American but like most hypocrites he was a slave to the American dollar. "I love the color green, papito," he told me when we first met, "whether it's las palmas de San Juan or the American green-back.” A true convert to capitalism.

The police officer that looked like Wilfred Brimley handed me over to Flaco, along with a summons to appear in court the following week. Flaco thanked him and humbly apologized for my behavior before snatching me up by the collar and pushing me toward the door.

At first I thought it was an act; he was playing the role of big brother to sell it to the police. But when we got to his car his attitude changed. He got in the back seat with me and I knew I was in trouble.

Kitty was in the driver's seat, and before starting the car he turned to me and said, "You owe us a car, June."

I opened my mouth to speak and Flaco immediately punched me in the jaw. Instantly, the bitter taste of blood started to pool in my mouth.

“Shut up!" Flaco hissed. He grabbed me by the face and yanked me toward him. "I don't like your friend Danny. He called me, blaming Kitty for this mess, and he told me where you were at."

The car started up and pulled into the flow of traffic on Benson Avenue.

"Kitty, turn the music up," Flaco said.

He leaned in to speak into my ear so that only I could hear him. "You know how I feel about these white boys. They can't be trusted. This one--" he said, with a thumb pointing at Kitty, “is half out of his mind on that wet. And your boy Danny might as well be white as scared as he acts."

"But--" I started to say.

"No! I don't wanna hear shit,” he snarled as he wrapped his hand around my throat. I wanted to tell him that it was Kitty's fault; he was the one who was late for the pick-up.
But if Flaco didn‘t want to hear it then it was best to stay shut. "You‘re gonna find me another Olds. Right now. And this time Kitty's goin' with you."

"Are we picking up Danny?" I asked, as he uncurled his fingers from around my throat.

"Pero, muchacho  tu no entiende!" he yelled. "Fuck Danny! He's out! The two of you better hope that the police don't come knocking on my door about anything."

Murphy's Law states that whatever can go wrong will go wrong at the worst possible moment.

As Kitty pulled onto the on-ramp of I-95 north a pouring rain started to come down, beating the windshield and sounding like small caliber bullets pelting the rooftop.

"Flaco, it's raining," I said, hoping he would change his mind about the mission.

“Then you're gonna get wet," he said with all the seriousness of a judge pronouncing sentence.

I could either deal with the rain or deal with Flaco. It didn't seem like much of a choice, so I zipped up my jacket and prepared myself for a swim.

Here's what I loved about the suburbs: back then the neighborhoods were so peaceful; the people thought they were far enough from the blight of downtown that crime couldn't creep on their lush green lawns. So naive. But it made carrying out petty crimes that much easier. There were actually a few times when Danny and I found a spare set of keys in the glove compartment.

Kitty drove us around until we found a car under decent cover. We found one parked on the corner of a small one-way, a quiet little strip with one street lamp far enough away that we could've spent the night without anyone being the wiser.

Flaco parked across the street and took his post as a lookout. Kitty and I ran up to the car and without even giving me a chance to do my thing Kitty smashed the window and unlocked the door. He started his ground patrol while I went to work on the steering column. The wind was pushing the rain into the car, making it difficult to see and causing my tool to slip on the plastic. I finally managed to crack the column and get a hold of the ignition gear. I pulled it back and the car started up; the radio came alive, tuned into a Christian broadcast. I felt a pang of guilt but I pushed it aside. All that was left was to make room for Kitty. I slipped out the driver's side and looked across the street.

"He's gone, man," Kitty said over the howling wind. I looked around, hoping Kitty was wrong. But he wasn't. Flaco only cared about his merchandise, and that's all that mattered to him. Kitty was disposable. Danny was disposable. I was disposable.

"Do you want a ride?" Kitty asked.

I didn't feel like pushing my luck with Kitty. I just wanted to get away from him, and the scene, as quick as possible. "No," I said, burying my hands in my pockets in search of bus fare. "I'm gonna catch the bus."

"Call me tomorrow and I'll have your money. Forget about Danny," he said, "this job was yours alone." 

I nodded as he pulled off and I watched him coast down the block. I never called him for that money, and I'm sure he didn't care. I wanted him to forget my name. Maybe he did. The trip home gave plenty of time to think about where my life was headed. I had ambitions but I lacked the discipline. I knew had to do a better job of running my life or else run the risk of crashing. Unfortunately, I never really learned how to get things right.

Eduardo Ramirez DN6284
SCI Graterford
P.O. Box 244
Graterford, PA 19426